About Me

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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Thoughts on friendship, tolerance, gratitude, and justice

"The divine friends must be attracted to and enamored of each other and ever be ready and willing to sacrifice their own lives for each other. Should one soul from amongst the believers meet another, it must be as though a thirsty one with parched lips has reached to the fountain of the water of life, or a lover has met his true beloved." ~Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith, p. 426

"Consider the flowers of the rose garden. Although they are of different kinds, various colors and diverse forms and appearances, yet as they drink from one water, are swayed by one breeze and grow by the warmth and light of one sun, this variation and this difference cause each to enhance the beauty and splendor of the others. The differences in manners, in customs, in habits, in thoughts, opinions and in temperaments is the cause of the adornment of the world of mankind. This is praiseworthy. Likewise this difference and this variation, like the difference and variation of the parts and members of the human body, are the cause of the appearance of beauty and perfection. As these different parts and members are under the control of the dominant spirit, and the spirit permeates all the organs and members, and rules all the arteries and veins, this difference and this variation strengthen love and harmony and this multiplicity is the greatest aid to unity." ~Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith, p. 295

I am sitting here typing this while I listen to a CD made for me by my dear friend, artist and musician, Louise Mould. The CD is one she made for my birthday. It just arrived in the mail last night. I have bugged her about making a CD of her songs for the past few years, and for the past few years she would just shake her head and walk away, so I did not actually think she would ever make a CD, but apparently my nagging must have actually had some positive impact because here I am, two years after I last asked about it, listening to Louise's beautiful voice and guitar playing. The songs on her CD are from a tape she made of her songs while living in Africa when she was a few years younger than I am now. In English, French and an African language that Louise will most certainly name in the comments section below this post, they are uplifting and resonate deeply, and I smile, imagining Louise in the Congo strumming away on her guitar in the strong, brilliant African sunlight.

I am not sure what I did to deserve such incredible friends. They are a constant source of inspiration, joy and encouragement to me. Like everyone, I have gone through ups and downs, but no matter what else is going on in my life, I have always been surrounded by incredible friends. Louise is probably going to have some strong words for me about sharing the following photograph of her with you, but I will deal with that when it happens ;-) I love this photo, taken by a friend of Louise's many years ago. It captures her calm, deep, gentle and wise spirit. There is an even more gorgeous photo on the cover of the CD she just sent me, but unfortunately I do not have a digital copy of that one. Perhaps Louise will rectify this ;-)

On Wednesday I drove down to Los Angeles with my mom's best friend, Cheryl. It is a seven hour drive through endless monoculture fruit and nut groves, cattle lots, and potato and pepper fields. As we looked out of the car to the west, caramel-coloured, arid mountains rose up out of the flat valley, velvet covered, undulating malleable contours. We climbed up through the grapevine pass, and then wound our way down into the mass of congestion that is L.A. Chery's home is a tiny, airy little place high on a hilltop in Redondo Beach. She has lived in the same house since I was a baby, and although I rarely get to visit, there is something grounding about being able to return to a place that is familiar -- such a contrast to my family's homes, which change every couple of years. The breeze from the ocean comes right up the hill and through her house, which is cool and light-filled. After a short rest, Cheryl and I headed down to the beach for a walk along the boardwalk. A Christian youth group sat in a cluster on the sand, singing praise songs; long-legged young girls roller-bladed up and down the boardwalk; joggers, walkers, and cyclists slid past, and groups of golden-skinned youth played beach volleyball on the sand. After our walk, we settled on the beach to watch the deep, blood-orange sun sink into the horizon line of the Pacific Ocean.

Yesterday Cheryl and paid a visit to the Museum of Tolerance. The museum's focus is to help educate people about prejudice, its horrific effects if left unchecked, and to help people to see that overcoming prejudice is a personal responsibility that ordinary people like you and I must be conscious of in our everyday lives. The Museum of Tolerance is a Jewish museum, and a good portion of the exhibits focus on the Holocaust, and how we can do things differently in the future to avoid repeating such horrors, but the museum also has a general tolerance section, which addresses past and current instances of injustice all over the world.

Upon entering the museum we walked down a walkway that spiraled its way all the way to the lower level. The wall along the right side of the walkway was painted white, and had black and white photographs of Holocaust Survivors, along with a short story about each individual, displayed one after the other all the way down to the beginning of the formal exhibits. There is something extremely powerful about seeing face after face of ordinary human beings who I could easily run into in the supermarket, as I walk downtown, or at the bus stop, and know that these seemingly ordinary peoples' lives have spanned multiple continents, are marked by profound loss and pain, and at the same time by a tremendous amount of hope and will to survive. Cheryl and I spent the first hour listening to a talk given by a Holocaust Survivor from Poland who lost his parents and two of his three sisters when he was just a young boy. The strength and resourcefulness that children who lived through the horrors of WWII have has always left me speechless, but hearing this man's account, as he stood two feet in front of me was intensely moving, and highlighted for me the complete chaos that shaped the lives of so many children who lived through the Holocaust.

After the talk, Cheryl and I perused a small section of the museum dedicated to objects that had belonged to children that did not survive the Holocaust. Some of Anne Frank's letters; a striped prison shirt; a journal. The item that I found most moving was a letter written by a young woman to a male friend who she had not been able to say goodbye to before the Nazis arrested her and her family. I am not sure where she wrote the letter, but she carefully folded it, pressing a photograph of herself into the pages, slid it into an envelope, and addressed it, probably hoping to be able to mail it at some point. She never did get to mail it. Her last act of dignity and independence was pushing the letter through the cattle bars of a transport vehicle that was carrying her to her death at one of Europe's many concentration camps. What amazes me is that someone actually found her letter on the ground and made sure that it got delivered to the address on the envelope in the middle of such a seemingly grim and hopeless war. It is these tiny gestures of faith and humanity in the face of so much hatred and pain that touch me deeply.

From there, Cheryl and I moved on to the Holocaust exhibit. It is an exhibit designed to enable visitors to actually feel as though they have been plunged into Europe in the 1930s and 40s. The museum has done an incredible job of it. One detail that helped me to connect to the experience was that we were given small cards that had photos of children living in Europe during the war on them at the beginning of the exhibit. We slid the cards into machines, a screen lighting up and telling us who this child was, where they were from, and what their situation was at the beginning of the war. Throughout the exhibit there were places to insert the cards that told us what was happening to the children at specific periods of time throughout the war, and then at the end we each received a printout of our child's story, telling us whether or not he or she survived the Holocaust.

There were many parts of the exhibit that will be hard to forget. One was the section where I had to pass through a tunnel labeled men or women and children, which led me into a replica of the gas chambers, where I watched a video of what happened in the chambers. Terror is an understatement of how I would have felt if I had been stripped naked and led into such a dark, cement room with my child, never to see the light of day again. The inhumanity made me weep as I sat there watching the video clip.

Another section that influenced me deeply was the liberation of Europe, and the images of few Jews that had survived to see freedom again emerging from the concentration camps like ghosts. A woman down on her knees kissing the hands of a US soldier was powerful -- I tried to imagine what it must feel like after so much torture and death and loss to have someone come give you a glimpse of hope again. I could not imagine it. I have never, and I hope will never experience anything even remotely like this in my life.

The exhibit highlighted the role that ordinary people played in the massacre of the Jews. Yes, Hitler led them, but his extermination program would not have been possible without the collaboration of thousands of ordinary citizens. The whole point, of course, being that situations like those that arose in Europe back in the 1930s and 40s arise all the time, but that they cannot and will not turn into the global human disaster that WWII did without the support of the general population.

We were about to leave the museum when we realized we had forgotten to visit a small exhibit of photographs of Muslim families in Albania that took Jews into their homes during the war. Apparently Albania ended up with the largest percentage of Jews that had been in the country prior to the war after WWII of any country in Europe. The reason for this is that the Muslim community refused to collaborate with the Nazis, risking their lives to save their Jewish friends and neighbours. When asked why they were inspired to save the lives of the Jews, the Albanian Muslims explained that they base their lives on something called Besa, which means faith and honour. As one of them explained: "For us there are no foreigners. There are locals and there are our guests. You do not kill your guests." Another woman put it perfectly when she said: "Our home belongs first to God, then to our guests, and finally to our family." The black and white photographs are uplifting, the photographer aiming to capture the spirit of the Albanians through their eyes. Many of them have managed to keep in touch with the Jews who stayed in their homes, despite the fact that many of these families ultimately left Albania and settled in Israel. Looking at the photographs, and reading the individual stories of people banding together and standing up for the Jews amongst them despite having different belief systems was a dramatic contrast from the images that I had just seen in the Holocaust exhibit. Again, the question that came to me was what would I do faced with such a situation. I imagine, of course, that I would take in as many people as I could. The Albanian Muslims have a lot to teach the world about tolerance and unity of belief and action. And the arts are such a great way to share the importance that individual choice makes in the world.

Yesterday evening I headed to L.A. international airport. I was supposed to be meeting friends of mine from Prince Edward Island who were heading to Australia to see their son Elliott, his sweet wife Della, and their first child, Haydar. Their itinerary had given them a seven hour layover in L.A., which was the reason I had made the trip down to the city for the day. Yes, I travel two days to hang out with friends in an airport for seven hours. I know. So I'm a little nuts. A little more nuts than I had intended, it turned out yesterday, as my friends ended up missing their connection to L.A., and by the time they arrived, they only had an hour and a half before they had to catch their flight to Sydney. Still, we made the most of it, and I have to say I am still glad I made the trip down there. For an hour and a half I felt like I was home for the first time in a year. At home in a fast food joint we had dinner at in the airport. It reminded me how important community and deep friendships are to creating a feeling of being at home in the world.

It is a sunny, blue skies Friday afternoon in Sacramento. It has been a week filled with much to be grateful for. Good friends. Reminders of the importance of justice and standing up for it even when doing so may mean sacrificing my own life. Beautiful landscapes. And more to come. Tomorrow I head out to the coast again with more friends and my parents to explore the coastline north of San Francisco.

I wish you a superb weekend. May you be surrounded by friends who make you feel you are at home!

Monday, July 25, 2011

The thing about presence

The past few days were spectacular. Spectacular because I got to immerse myself in a great deal of natural beauty, and surround myself with incredible new friends.

I started the weekend off with Friday evening devotions at the home of some close friends. Many of the writings we read at our devotions this week were about forgiveness, and how, when someone offends us, we must immediately forgive them. I find this to be a challenging one, and we had a great discussion about forgiveness in our everyday lives, which gave me a lot to reflect on and practice over the next week.

After devotions we had a great BBQ prepared by the parents' of the hostess, who were visiting from Puerto Rico. I have never met anyone from Puerto Rico before, and being such an island enthusiast, I was interested to hear all about the island, and what life is like there. It is interesting to me that no matter where an island is in the world, certain themes run like a current through all islands and island cultures. Like what? Like the high rate of unemployment. The high rate of emigration. A strong sense of community and family. The lower salaries than on mainlands. I have never felt much at home in the country I was born in, but then I have never been to islands that are considered part of the US, and I have always been curious if I would feel more at home if I were living on a US island territory.

Saturday morning began early with a free yoga class with Yoga Aross America, at McKinley Park. Yoga Across America is trying to make yoga accessible for communities all over the United States free of charge. It is a great initiative started by Gina Garcia. This weekend we had live music, provided by Alma Desnuda, which created an inspiring and uplifting atmosphere for the 268 folks that turned up to practice yoga on Saturday.

There was a lovely breeze. The music slowed and picked up tempo based on what we were doing. The birds were chirping away, and it was just an ideal way to practice. At the end of class the band played a number of extra tunes, and some woman even served homemade granola in cups to anyone who wanted some.

On Sunday morning some friends and I cycled over to Orphan for brunch, followed by a bike ride out to see a home that one of my friends has just made an offer on. The bike ride took us out along the river, over a bridge, and along the levee. The river was deep blue. The trees arched over us, and the path stretched out endlessly ahead. We made it to the house in about 45 minutes and sat down on the back porch to enjoy the view of a man-made lake, complete with fountain, and a lovely cool breeze. As we prepared to leave, I discovered that my bike had had a rather nasty encounter with some thorns, and had two very flat tires, which refused to re-inflate, even for a short distance. Two of my friends decided to ride back into town to get their car, and then come back and pick myself and my friend Meredith, who kindly offered to stay with me, up. Meredith and I decided to walk to the nearest Starbucks to get out of the heat, so we took off along the scorching roadway, pushing my flailing bicycle alongside us. We had made it to the Starbucks and sat down with our cold drinks when we received a call from our friends who were supposed to be coming to get us: one of them had two flat tires also, so they were walking to a bike shop to get the tires mended.

Long story short: if you want to take a short bike expedition, stay on the paved trails. Apparently sliding down the side of the levee to get to the house we were going to check out was where we picked up the thorns. We did finally get picked up, and went to grab Mexican takeout and then head to the park for a picnic with a bunch of friends who had been patiently waiting around for us to make it back into town! We spent the evening relaxing on the grass, playing bocce (my Italian grandfather would have been well-pleased!), munching on tacos, and eventually heading off to Gunthers, one of the most well-known local ice-cream joints, to end the day.

I got home last night feeling truly happy, and realizing that I had been so immersed in what I was doing that I had not stopped to think about any other place all day long. This blog is all about presence, and what I realized yesterday is that it is when I actually stop thinking so much about presence and absence, and just enjoy where I am, what I am doing, and the people who I am spending time with that I am most fully here. The thing about presence, it seems, is that it seems to arrive unexpected when we stop thinking and analyzing so much and just get on with life with everything we've got to give. You knew that already, didn't you? Just think how much time you would have saved me if you had just commented on my first entry, way back when. Maybe it's time for a blog title change? ;-)

Speaking of enjoying where I am, in my last entry I talked about the farm I volunteer on, Soil Born, and how gorgeous our youth garden is looking. I had meant to upload some photos, but I had a small accident with my camera a few weeks ago when I was frolicking through the crashing waves of the Pacific, and so I had to borrow a friend's camera to take photos of our garden, and was waiting for him to send me some of the shots so that I could share them with you. He kindly emailed those to me this weekend, so I present to you our colourful youth garden:


Happy Monday evening, people! And have a great Tuesday!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday thoughts on garden tape, quitting, and taking the next step

It is another scorching hot day here in northern California. Yesterday I was out on the farm I volunteer on preparing beds, planting sunflowers and corn, and harvesting volunteer potatoes. It was a hot day, and by mid-afternoon I was more than ready to head home with my box of freshly harvested vegetables and a bouquet of colourful flowers. Our garden looks gorgeous. Like something out of a storybook. I say our garden because I started volunteering in March, so I was there to help prepare some of the beds, and to plant many of the seeds and seedlings. I was there when it was endless beds of soil with tiny trails of green shoots pushing up out of the ground. To see it now it is incredible that it ever looked so bare. The sunflowers tower above me, their bright, butter yellow rays sharp against the clear blue sky. The corn is standing tall and thick. The deep green watermelons are swelling beneath a low canopy of lush, creeping vines. Bright purple, deep rose, burning orange, pale pink, white, pale creamy yellow, mottled pink and cream, and peach blossoms grow so thick and tall that it is impossible to cut through the beds. Purple and green basil blossom, their pungent aroma strong in the afternoon sun. Cucumber vines grow thick along another bed, dark green and bright yellow cucumbers studding the soil beneath them. The tomato plants climb their trellis, a profusion of bright red fruit hanging in clusters. Purple cabbages look like giant roses growing along the soil. Marbled green zucchini and bumpy-skinned bright yellow squash hide in the shade of big, prickly leaves. The red central stalk of rainbow chard is highlighted by sunlight. The sound of happy, well-fed bees is loud throughout the garden. As I kneel down in a row, pulling nests of potatoes tumbling out of the earth, a tiny frog leaps away under the protection of the bell pepper plants. Our garden is magic. And it is gorgeous.

It was also parched yesterday. In need of a deep, long drink of water. So the fellow who manages the garden turned on the water before taking off, leaving me to harvest in the afternoon heat. Just as I finished harvesting, and was about to head home for a nice cool drink, I heard a miniature pop, and looked up to see water gushing out of a hole in one of the drip tapes that carries water along each bed to the plants. A couple of seconds later I heard three more miniature explosions, and the pathways were turning into paddle pools, none of the water reaching the parched plants. I was hot and tired, and ready to go home, but I could not get Guy (the fellow in charge of the garden) on the phone, so I realized I was going to have to fix the irrigation system myself. I have never fixed drip tape before, so I went in search of one of the farm interns to ask for a tutorial. She kindly came over and showed me how to turn off the water on each row, cut the tape on either side of the damage, and then re-connect the intact tape using a coupler. It took a while, but I managed to get the other three fixed on my own. Watching the water reach all the plants in the rows when I was done was deeply satisfying, as was knowing that despite being overheated and tired, I had stayed on and learned a new skill that I know I will be able to use again and again.

Last night a friend of mine who is in the middle of medical school, and was here for the last year doing an internship at U.C. Davis Medical Centre was packing up his house, and myself and a number of other people headed over to help him pack. We packed most of the night, and when we left most of his apartment was in boxes, ready to be loaded into the U-Haul trailer that he will be driving across the country to his new home in South Carolina. While I was sorting through paperwork and packing up books, I came across a piece of paper with a poem on it that caught my eye -- not because it is incredibly good writing, but because I liked the sentiment it was expressing. The poem's title was blunt:

Don't Quit

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you're trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low, and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest if you must, but don't you quit.

 Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As everyone of us sometimes learns,
And many a failure turns about,
When he might have won he stuck it out;
Don't give up though the pace seems slow,
You may succeed with another blow.

Success is failure turned inside out,
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far,
So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit,
It's when things seem worse, that you must not quit.

I have no idea who wrote this poem -- there was no name on it, but I copied it down in my journal anyway. It is interesting to me how often when I am ready to throw in the towel and give up on something, but I keep pushing forward, saying "just keep going--take one more step forward," that in these moments I usually learn something new. The garden experience yesterday was just one such experience. I have been trying to do research for the novel that I am writing, and having very little success. But despite the seeming lack of progress, I keep trying to make contacts, sending out at least one or two emails a week. A couple of weeks ago I had an email response from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., saying that they had a list of potential interview candidates that I could contact through them, filling out a form for each one, and sending it to the museum so that they could in turn forward it to the individual person, out of respect for their privacy. When I first got this response I was excited. Then I was slightly discouraged. I mean how many of these people are actually going to respond to my letters, I thought? And if they do respond, how am I ever going to be able to afford to travel to wherever they live to interview them? I sent out my first letter anyway. A week passed with no response. Then, this Wednesday evening, the phone rang. When I answered it, a foreign-sounding voice said: "are you Greek or Turk?" I was taken totally off-guard, and wondered who this person was. It turned out that it was Agnes. The first person on my list. She was calling to say that she would love to be interviewed, and that if I come to her home, on the east coast, she would put me up for a few days while she shared her story with me. I cannot tell you how excited I am about her response, and about the prospect of getting to interview her in person. My big challenge now is how to fund a trip to the east coast to interview her. This morning I called the Jewish Museum in San Francisco to ask if they had any suggestions for grants that might help fund my research. The woman that I spoke with told me they did not have anything that could help me there, and was generally not terribly friendly. I hung up the phone feeling downcast again -- and then realized that this was yet another one of those opportunities when I needed to take another step forward, even when it seemed that I was not making any progress. I know that eventually I will find the right person or organization, and that I will make it to the east coast to interview Agnes. It is just a matter of continuing to take those steps forward even when I am not sure where I am headed.

Have you had an experience lately where you felt like giving up, but took one more step forward, even if you could not see how that tiny extra effort when you were already at the end of your tether, could possibly make a difference? Did you learn something new?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Quietly wondering

It is Tuesday night, and it is finally silent. Well...sort of. I can still hear traffic outside, but there are fewer cars, and in between I can hear the wind in the trees outside. It is only 10.20pm. By midnight it will be mostly quiet. Late night has become my favourite time of day here, I think because it is the only time when I can lie in bed and listen to nothing but the wind in the trees. A train rumbles across the valley late at night--some places I have lived have church bells. Here the rumbling train moving across the valley marks the passage of time in the same way. It reminds me where I am--in the middle of a wide open floodplain valley that is considered to be some of the most productive agricultural land in the country. It reminds me that I am in a vast land, and that the coast that I am used to having so near by that I can almost reach out and wrap it around my shoulders like a shawl, is far away.

Earlier I was in the kitchen barefoot waiting for the kettle to whistle, and listening to the wind sing through the screen door leading out into the garden. Dinner was over. My parents had gone out for a walk, and it was quiet for a precious 30 minutes. I could hear my own feet move across the kitchen floor.

I started researching a travel article that I had to have in to an editor today last Friday. I researched all day Friday, most of the night Friday night, all day Saturday, and most of the night Saturday night, all day Sunday, and Sunday night. On Monday I started writing. I wrote all day, and late into the night last night, sitting, sitting, sitting at my desk trying to conjure up images of Atlantic islands in my imagination. Trying to remember how it felt to drive along the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton with close friends, the sunlight filtering down through the trees, the car filled with laughter. Trying to decide which parts of Prince Edward Island to not include in my short few paragraphs about the island. Which part of six years of places I love are most essential? I finally sent my article off this afternoon, and went out on the back porch and sat in the sunshine and watched birds whose names I do not know hop around in the garden, and a squirrel leap from tree branch to tree branch. I inspected my tomato plants--two of which are covered in tiny yellow cherry tomatoes, and two of which do not show signs of ever producing fruit, and glanced at my arugula, which bolted before it ever really grew.

I have been doing a lot of silent wondering lately. Wondering whether all the work I am pouring into my writing is going to pay off in the long-term. Wondering how long it will take until I can write for magazines that pay a salary that will actually support me. Wondering if I have the stamina to keep going long enough to succeed as a writer. Wondering. It is a rough road, this much is very clear to me. I have given up social engagements and the hope of actually going anywhere exciting this summer, shopping and movies and new books and meals out with friends--even my weekends have been swallowed up with work, because I am still learning how long it takes to write a polished article, and because the learning curve is steep. For the first time in my life I am having to make large sacrifices on many levels. Giving up things makes me wonder a lot, and I am one who tends to do her wondering silently, while listening to the wind moving through the trees.

There is less traffic now, and more wind. In a place that tends to be hot and still at night, this unexpected breeze is a lovely surprise. I read in a blog recently that the best way to accomplish goals is to set them out loud and in public, but I find that setting my goals quietly and reflecting on them in my head and heart while I wait for the kettle to whistle, or look at the way the golden light is filtering through the upside down Mexican fishing basket that I converted into a lampshade at the bottom of my bed is making patterns on the ceiling seems to work better for me. I find that quietly wondering helps me work towards my goals slow but steady, in a way that loud sharing and public statements do not.

Do you quietly wonder?

Monday, July 4, 2011

4th of July

Photo by Andy Wilkes, 2008
As I type this post it sounds like bombs are exploding all over the city, the noise blossoming up and out, followed by spurts of crackling, fits of shots, and a shrill whistling that sounds like a balloon releasing its last breath under pressure, through a taut rubber opening. Fortunately all of the commotion outside is the city celebrating the 4th of July, and not the beginning of yet another war. My family had friends over for supper this evening, and after they left we did not feel like getting in the car and pushing through crowds to get to an official fireworks destination, so we decided to take a long walk through our neighbourhood and enjoy the small street celebrations that families all over the country were putting on this evening.

It is a hot, still summer night. The street lamps are glowing beneath the almost continuous canopy of oaks that dominate my neighbourhood, illuminating the full leafy constellation above our heads. Many people, wanting some peace and quiet to set off street fireworks with their children, have parked their cars across the street, blocking off traffic. A rare night of pedestrians, cyclists, and clusters of adults and children holding glow sticks and sparklers, standing in semi-circles around fountains of bright pink, green, red and blue sparks shooting up into the air -- some spinning, others releasing the high-pitched whining whistle, and others sending off erratic sparks in different directions like fireflies lighting up in swarms that slowly move across the darkness. Laughter and chatter fill the air. Some teenagers are sitting along the pavement sending text messages while their younger siblings draw pictures in the air with light. Parents kick back with cool bottles of beer that clink as we walk by. Groups of 20 somethings slide by on their beach cruisers. Blossoming trees are lit up as another fit of sparks explodes into the night. Windows are lit up with warm light. Lush foliage surrounding houses lights up momentarily and then falls into darkness. Roses are silhouetted against front porch lights. A pale yellow sickle moon hangs lopsided just above the rooftops. In front of us our shadows merge and separate, stretching out fluid along the cracked pavement ahead. Children yelp and shout with excitement, their voices rising and falling as we turn a corner and encounter another cluster, lawn chairs on the pavement, faces lit up brighter and brighter until the firework is spent. Scuffling and fiddling follows, and then another firework is lit and children scurry back, ushered by their parents, to stand or squat a safe distance away and watch, eyes wide and alert.

This morning when we woke up every house on the block had an American flag blooming out of its front lawn. There was nothing there last night, so someone must have come during the night and planted them there, feeling strongly that our entire street must come together in this unified show of patriotism. It is the first time I have ever had an American flag anywhere on my property. Standing on the pavement earlier today, I looked down the street and saw the miniature red, white and blues waving proudly in the breeze, and thought about the various dates throughout the year that people all over the world celebrate some form of independence. In a sense it is a universally shared aspiration, although it may mean something very different in diverse parts of the world. It probably means something very different to each individual as well. Having been raised in the Mediterranean, I have only celebrated a handful of 4th of Julys in my lifetime, and I had never, until tonight, really contemplated what we are celebrating. The right to self-government. I think about how many people do not have the right to determine how they live their lives. What religion they will follow. Whether they will go to school or work.

As the fireworks go off all around me, I am thinking about all those people in the world who are not free. Who are being persecuted for the colour of their skin, the language they happen to have been born speaking, or the belief system they follow. The 4th of July is a celebration of national independence, but it is also a reminder that each of us has a responsibility to continue speaking out against any form of injustice and the withholding of personal freedoms, so that some day everyone can enjoy an equal degree of freedom. Because really, if there is even one person who cannot claim independence, are any of us really independent?

Happy 4th of July, friends! While you are celebrating, why not take a minute to reflect on what independence really means to you? How does your country celebrate it? How do you personally celebrate independence in your everyday life? And how can you support others around the world who are still fighting for it?

Friday, July 1, 2011

For everything there is a sign

"O SON OF MAN! For everything there is a sign. The sign of love is fortitude under My decree and patience under My trials." Baha'u'llah, The Hidden Words

A friend read this Hidden Word to me on Tuesday. We were talking about how to move through periods of life that are challenging with grace, commitment, determination, faith and joy. Everyone who has ever tried to do anything that is the least bit risky in life has gone through periods of tests and challenges, but usually when we read about these moments they are within the context of a larger story that ends in triumph. A best-seller, a movie....you know what I mean. The stories that inspire us to keep going when life is throwing massive tests in our direction are usually the ones from people who have already pushed on through and come out triumphant. We do not so often come across stories of what life was like for these people when they were in the middle of those tough times, and I'm thinking that is because when they were there, very few of them were certain they would triumph in the end.

I was reading a blog entry today by Yaro Starak. The title of the entry was 'How to remain productive when you feel like giving up.' You can read it here. I thought this article was good because although Yaro has made a successful business out of his blogging and helping others to be successful bloggers, he very clearly went through some tough times getting there, and is very honest about how hard you have to work to succeed as an entrepreneur.

I am very definitely in the phase of developing my business (which is writing) where I feel discouraged a lot. Unlike a few months ago, it is not that I am not getting any writing jobs. It's that the number of writing jobs I am getting is not growing fast enough to support me yet. I say yet because despite feeling discouraged, I recognize deep down that I do not actually want to give up. That this is my passion and my gift, and that I have to keep trying. I believe that I will succeed. I just wish it would happen a little faster!!

Over the last few weeks I have gone from writing only for myself to writing a minimum of two travel articles a month, at least one tea description a month for a small tea company, and at least one or two other articles a month for various companies. Today my first printed piece was published in the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op quarterly paper. Yesterday one of my travel articles was published online at Bootsnall, and I was contacted by a company that markets handcrafted food products and is looking for writers a couple of days ago. Compared with two months ago, I am actually making a lot of progress. But it is slow going, and there is a steep learning curve. I know how to research, and I consider myself a relatively strong writer, but I have never had to write under time constraints. Researching and writing the quality of writing that I know I am capable of in a short period of time is a learned skill, and one that I am very much immersed in at the moment. Because I am working as a freelancer, I have to constantly be scoping out future article ideas and sending off pitches, which in itself is time-consuming. There is a lot to think about, and none of it is second-nature to me at this early point in my career.

There is a distinction for me between the idea of being patient, and the how one actually ACTIVELY practices patience, because while accepting that I need to be patient is one thing, coming up with practical ways to do this that do not involve just sitting back and waiting for something to magically happen is another thing entirely. When I am discouraged, it feels like the weight of the world is hanging over me, and motivating myself to get going can sometimes take a hell of a lot of energy. Coming up with practical things I can do when I hit that wall is helpful. I know I will get where I want to be eventually, but right now I am down here in the valley of hard work and struggle, with very little reward for all my hard work, so what I need is a what to do list for the days when the going gets tough.

One of the things in Yaro's article that stuck out to me was the question "what can you create today?" I like the idea of asking myself this question because when I am struggling to get past a threshold, taking on huge projects is hard. Putting this question in front of me is much more doable. It does not have to be big, but it has to be moving me towards my goal. Any small act of creativity will do to help get me over that blip in the road until I am speeding along again full-force.

I decided to put it into practice today. Despite all the great things that I have going on with my writing this week, today was a blip day. The reason for the blip was that most of my friends back in Canada are all hanging out at a very cool camp in the forest this weekend, and I would really, really like to be there with them. But since my salary is practically non-existent at the moment, I will probably not be traveling at all this summer, let alone taking to the skies to join friends in Canada. I was sitting at my desk this morning and thought to myself: OK. You have to do SOMETHING. Or, as Yaro would say, "What can I create today?"

What I created was a lovely description for the tea company I write for, and this blog entry. I had committed to researching and writing one tea description a week, and pulling myself together and creating this little description helped me to make my goal. I had also been meaning to re-commit myself to my blog as I have been noticing that as I write more and more for others, I seem to be doing less of it on my own blog. As I finish writing this entry my father arrives home all excited with the newly printed Co-Op Reporter. True to their word, they did indeed give me a full page article. And an email just came in from the National Holocaust Museum with some excellent news about contacts for the research I am doing for my novel. I'd say it is working. :-)

So word from the trenches is to keep slugging away troops. Get up. Get moving, and take a step forward, even if it is only an inch. I am starting an official list of ways to keep moving. I now have number one thanks to Yaro.

Happy Friday people. And if you are stuck, remember to ask yourself "What can I create today?" and go for it. Let me know how it goes. And if you have other suggestions for my list, please give me a holler.